MoveTube: Why Akram Khan will command the Olympic stadium No wonder Danny Boyle chose this talented British-Bangladeshi artist, who straddles the worlds of Kathak and contemporary dance, to dance at the Olympic opening ceremony
It's no surprise that Danny Boyle picked Akram Khan to be a featured dancer in his Olympic opening ceremony. As well as being an embodiment of modern, multicultural Britain, he's one of our most talented artists.
Born in Wimbledon, Khan grew up with an ability to dance as well as speak in two languages. He was sent to classical Kathak classes from the age of seven by his Bangladeshi mother, but by the age of 10 had perfected a Michael Jackson Thriller routine that won him first prize at a school disco contest.
By the time he was 18, Khan had toured the world in Peter Brook's epic production of the Mahabarata and had a dance career mapped out for him by his Kathak guru Sri Pratap Pawar. But that classical future felt too small and too safe for him, and instead he left the close-knit community at home to study contemporary dance.
At De Montfort University, then at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Khan encountered thrilling new worlds of movement – Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, political dance theatre. He also discovered his own appetite to choreograph and experiment. Since launching his own company in 2002, he's straddled two worlds – Kathak and modern dance. He has forged a unique talent from them.
This extract of his 2002 work Kaash above (starting at 1.58) is a reminder of how fast and how radically Khan was able to reinvent his classical roots: it's a group work rather than a traditional solo performance, and while it's possible to see elements of Kathak's percussive footwork, wheeling body shapes and spins in the choreography, they are stripped-down and re-assembled into linear, minimalist configurations.
In the 2010 work Gnosis, Khan returns to a much more intimate conversation with his history: the first few seconds are a sequence of almost improvisatory arm movements; liquid, eloquent, gestures that chase each other like a train of thought. From 0.22 and 0.37 the gestures have a more classical shaping, phrased into the larger dipping and curving trajectories of Kathak dance.
Even in this short clip, it's clear what a powerful presence Khan has as a performer – I predict he'll have no trouble commanding the vast Olympic stadium. While he's physically quite compact, he can move with lightning speed and rare delicacy, making a moment of stillness feel climactic. But Khan is just as interesting when he's dancing with others as he is when performing solo. Another feature of his career has been collaborations he's set up with performers from very different backgrounds, like the2005 duet Zero Degrees, created with the Moroccan-Flemish dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (also with the artist Antony Gormley and composer Nitin Sawhney). Here the opening dialogue of gestures and the fierce spinning sequence both have a strong Kathak flavour, but the embattled argument with Cherkaoui – the rebounding floor work, the interrogation of Gormley's figures – are all new discoveries for Khan.
A year later he created the duet Sacred Monsters with Sylvie Guillem. The title was a reference to both dancers having been youthful prodigies in their respective worlds: the work itself was created out of the dance journey they made towards each other. Guillem, the long, thin, pale opposite of Khan, was an unlikely partner, and in the first sequence they make comedy out of their struggles to accommodate each other. By contrast the second sequence from 0.58 is one of moving unity. As Guillem straddles Khan's waist with her legs, her torso and arms echo his as if joined by invisible strings, they enact a conversation in music and dance that's almost shocking in its intimacy.
The final clip I've chosen is of Khan's most recent work DESH. It's a visionary piece of dance theatre about his own relationship with his parents' homeland. And even in these brief extracts it's clear how masterly Khan's range has become as he occupies different characters and different imaginative worlds: the angry, questing dynamic of the opening sequence: the confusion of a Bangladeshi street at 0:45, where a cacophony of impulses rages through the classical contours of his dancing. DESH happens to be the best creation of Khan's career so far, but it also has the feel of a summation, a taking stock – an artist's attempts to connect with his roots while embracing the passionate contradictions of his present.